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He Knows They Don't Know

William Goldman has had a very successful, Oscar-winning career writing for Hollywood while tweaking it at the same time. He's at it again.

April 02, 2000|ROBERT W. WELKOS | Robert W. Welkos is a Times staff writer

With his friend John Cleese of "Monty Python" fame seated at his side on stage at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, William Goldman looked out on hundreds of fellow screenwriters one recent evening and had a confession to make.

Goldman, who won Academy Awards for writing "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" and "All the President's Men," said he had skipped seventh grade, "which is the grade we learn grammar."

"Now you know why I write mostly dialogue," he quipped, as laughter rippled through the audience.

Goldman's appearance marked the end of a hectic 12-hour publicity blitz through Los Angeles to hype his chatty new book about Hollywood and the movies titled "Which Lie Did I Tell?: More Adventures in the Screen Trade" (Pantheon Books, $26.95).

The book takes its title from a comment made to Goldman one day in a Las Vegas hotel room by a blowhard producer who was on the phone promoting his latest projects, "spouting inaccurate grosses, potential star castings, stuff like that." Suddenly, Goldman writes, the producer put his hand over the mouthpiece and said, "Bill--Bill--Which lie did I tell?"

In 1983, Goldman had Tinseltown buzzing when his tell-all bestseller, "Adventures in the Screen Trade," hit the shelves and his now-famous phrase, "Nobody knows anything," entered the film world's lexicon. That phrase, he believes, is as valid today as ever.

"Nobody has the least idea, I believe, what will work and what won't work for audiences," Goldman said in an interview before going on stage. "Even the most successful director of all time, Mr. Spielberg--look what happened to 'Amistad'? Do you think he thought it was going to bomb? No! They don't know."

Goldman holds a unique place in Hollywood--a veritable "Mr. Outside" and "Mr. Inside." Not only does he work with many of the industry's power players, but he is also given wide latitude to launch literary Scuds at the very same industry that pays his bills.

"The reason he is allowed this is because he comes from a place of success," said screenwriter Scott Frank ("Out of Sight," "Get Shorty"), who looks upon Goldman as his writing mentor. "Unlike most people in Hollywood, he is not bitter. He is only saying what we all wish we had the guts to say."

Frank said that Goldman is one of the few screenwriters who understands both cinematic storytelling and telling a story from character. "One of the things that Bill is known for is that he constantly surprises you--not only within the narrative, but within the scene."

Yes, Goldman will venture out of New York (he loves his Knicks) to take meetings at the usual L.A. watering holes, but if you blink twice, you might miss him.

"I don't come to L.A. often, and I don't stay long," he said. "I get very edgy out here. I'm edgy anyway. Usually, if the meeting is in the morning, I come out the day before. If it's in the afternoon, I'll come out the morning of and I usually am gone the next day. . . . Here's the deal. I'm the only living American male who admits to being a terrible driver. I hate to drive. I have no sense of direction whatsoever and it's hateful, so I just don't do it."

In his new book, Goldman offers not only a primer for would-be screenwriters, including an original screenplay he wrote for the book that he allows some of today's top screenwriters to analyze, doctor or destroy--but also sprinkles the book with amusing, if sometimes pointless, tidbits he has collected over the years, such as:

* Jumping into the pool at the Hotel du Cap during the Cannes Film Festival to verify the true height of action superstar Sylvester Stallone. "Sixty-seven inches, dripping wet."

* Watching an exhausted Val Kilmer one day flub his lines so often on the African set of "The Ghost and the Darkness," that producer and co-star Michael Douglas pulled him aside and said: Do you want a career like Eric Roberts? Do you want a career like Mickey Rourke? Well, you can have that if you don't shape up.

* Informing us that one of the great scenes in the 1994 film "Maverick" involved Linda Hunt as the Magician. Don't remember it? That's because it was cut out.

* Writing a Chevy Chase project called "Memoirs of an Invisible Man" and having the former "Saturday Night Live" star come up and ask if the script could explore the loneliness of invisibility? Which triggered this reaction by Goldman: "AAAARRRGHHHH!"

Goldman also wants everyone to know that he did not--repeat not--write the 1997 film "Good Will Hunting."

"That one drives me mad," he said. "People can't believe Matt Damon and Ben Affleck wrote 'Good Will Hunting,' and it's on the Net that I wrote it. I've written over and over, I did not write it. I met with them for one day. Their script had such wonderful stuff in it."

At 68, Goldman says it shouldn't surprise anyone that he still works in Hollywood while dishing dirt about the movies.

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